The Champagne region has a history starting long before the accidental invention of Champagne in the 17th century. Dom Perignon, the Benedictine monk credited with Champagne’s invention, really did not discover Champagne. The phenomenon of streaming bubbles created by the refermentation of wine had been observed for decades. He did, however, make enormous contributions to Champagne’s winemaking techniques such as making white wine from red grapes. His famous quote, “Come quick, I’m drinking the stars” is hard to verify, but appropriate for this festive drink. See “Bubbles & Holidays: A Perfect Pairing.”
The Champagne region, about an hour’s train ride from Paris, sits in the pretty French countryside encompassing the major towns of Reims and Épernay, France. Roman conquests, invasions by the Franks, the French Revolution, and two World Wars have buffeted the region. The Gothic Cathedral of Notre-Dame of Reims, completed in the 14th century, reflects the triumphs and scars of those times. But the countryside and the Cathedral of Reims are now monuments to its resilience and the prosperous industry surrounding them.
Artists including Marc Chagall were asked to replace the Cathedral’s war-torn stained glass windows. The countryside and vineyards, devastated by the battles in World War I, are now teaming with harvest trucks loaded this fall with healthy grapes, bringing all of us the luxury drink that is rising in worldwide demand. Read the book, Wine & War for more details on the Champenoise history.
“To be a Frenchman means to fight for your country and its wine.”
–Claude Terrail, owner, Restaurant La Tour d’Argent
The chalk creyères – or caves – created to hold the aging Champagne bottles served an important function during World War I, sheltering the Champenoise people from the German bombings. Some cave junctions functioned as underground hospitals, chapels, and kitchens. During World War II, many Champagne producers bricked in “false walls” in the caves to keep the Germans from stealing their precious Champagne and future earnings. Taittinger, Veuve Clicquot, Moet & Chandon, and Bollinger were a few of the houses that thwarted the weekly Champagne confiscation to supply Nazi troops. By mislabeling bottles and concealing their stock they confounded the evil Weinführer, Herr Klaebisch, whenever possible. The 5-year Nazi occupation ended in the German army’s official surrender in Reims on May 8, 1945. Fortunately, the Champagne vineyards did not sustain the same damage in World War II that they did in World War I’s brutal battles. Champagne houses and growers were able to continue and prosper through the coming decades.
Veuve Clicquot alone has 24 KM of creyères. This Champagne house created several historic “firsts” in the Champagne business. The Veuve or “Widow” Clicquot was the inventor of the riddling rack, or pupitre. She drilled holes in her kitchen table to fit wine bottle necks. Riddling allows yeast to settle in the Champagne bottle through the slow turning of the bottle in precise movements. The yeast then gradually gathers in the upended bottle’s neck to be extracted later. The riddling process created the first clarified Champagne.
Other historical “firsts” included the creation of Rosé Champagne (also claimed by Ruinart). Veuve Clicquot was the first to host the ceremony of Sabering of Champagne. Prussian guards opened the bottles with their swords. Veuve Clicquot was also an early consumer marketer, cleverly branding their Champagne with the unique brightly colored yellow labels now seen prominently in stores and in their modern headquarter’s boutique.
Some prestige Champagne Houses like House of Krug and Louis Roederer also played important roles in Champagne history. Joseph Krug founded the House of Krug in 1843 on the foundation of ensuring quality winemaking at a time when scurrilous products were poorly made. He spoke multiple languages, facilitating the opening of new foreign markets.
Louis Roederer first created Cristal Champagne in 1876 for Alexander II of Russia. Many view Cristal as the first “Prestige Cuvée,” or high-end proprietary blend promoted by a Champagne House. Russia’s political situation at the time was unstable and the Tsar feared assassination. He ordered Champagne bottles that were clear, not the green glass of the time, so he could make sure there was not a bomb underneath the indentation.
The Champagne region welcomes visitors to taste their luxury products and tour the historic and quaint villages. Wine tourism here is increasing with several “Grower” Champagne producers like Roger Coulon, offering luxury accommodations. Most Champagne tasting must be booked in advance. Tours of the Reims Cathedral, focusing on the stunning stain glass, are available daily. High-end restaurants like 3 Michelin Star L’Assiette Champenoise offer food and wine pairings created to please visitors and highlight the local luxury wines. The Champagne region is triumphantly flourishing despite its tumultuous history.
Where to Stay
L’Assiette Champenoise (A Relais & Chateaux Hotel): Stately hotel that features its eponymous Michelin 3 Star Restaurant.
Le Clos des Terres Soudées (A Chateaux & Hotels Collection): Beautiful suites owned by Champagne Roger Coulon.
Best Western Plus Hôtel de la Paix: Modern rooms right in the heart of Reims offering easy access to Reims historical sites.
Les Grains d’Argent: In the quaint village of Dizy, this 3 star hotel is also the site of a gourmet restaurant.
Where to Eat
L’Assiette Champenoise: Michelin 3 Stars chef, Arnaud Lallement, was a gracious host along with his attentive staff. I left the restaurant with a custom menu of my selections including the Langoustine Royale with citron caviar. The wine list offers a deep choice of Krug and other Champagne and features French regional selections presented via an iPad from Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the Loire.
Les Grains d’Argent: Chef Jean-François has a beautifully appointed restaurant in the village of Dizy. His signature dish is Champagne escargot with baby onions.
Where to Taste Champagne
Veuve Clicquot: Enjoy a modern boutique, cave tours showing historic sites, and a luxury tasting of their range of Champagnes.
Billecart-Salmon: They offer one of the most complete tastings of their library of Champagne. Historic single vineyard St. Hilaire is located on-site. Tastings can be booked through several tour operators. You may want to schedule a knowledgeable guide like Mary Kirk Bonnet of Wine Contacts.
Champagne Roger Coulon: Book via [email protected]. The personal tour and tasting is impressive. They have an Inn onsite. Coulon is one of the increasing number of “Grower Champagnes” in the region. A Grower or RM (Récoltant-Manipulant) is a grower who owns his own vineyards and makes his own Champagne vs. a very large Champagne House.
For a Comprehensive Tour of Champagne: Consider French Wine Explorers. Have Pascale Bernasse schedule a personal comprehensive tour with tastings.
A Selection of Champagne Prestige Cuvée’s: Where to Find
House of Krug Grande Cuvée NV, $190
Wine Spectator – 95 Points
Tasting Notes: Golden color, toast and brioche aromas with almonds and honey. Creamy mousse. Drink now but will age beautifully for up to a decade. (Carrying Case extra)
Veuve Clicquot 2006 La Grande Dame, $119
Wine Spectator – 94 Points
Tasting Notes: Smoke-tinged aromas of almond and poached pear with a creamy mouse and refined finish. Drink now through 2030.
Billecart-Salmon, 1999 Cuvee Nicolas François, $85-$95
Wine Enthusiast – 95 Points
Tasting Notes: Great intensity of flavor with aromas of white flowers and subtle brioche. The weight and freshness make it suitable for further aging.
Bollinger La Grand Année Brut Champagne 2004, $150
Wine Spectator – 94 points
Tasting Notes: The aromas reflect its superb aging: toasted bread, exotic spices, and stone fruit. Note the silky mousse. The blend is 66% Pinot Noir and 34% Chardonnay. This Champagne is firmly structured and suitable for further aging through 2024.